I wrote this post this morning for a film class, and I felt like sharing:
I’d like to point back to a time in M. Night Shyamalan’s career when he was still turning out enjoyable, thought provoking films–you know, before Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and The Visit. In fact, I encourage you to reply to this post with your “check out” film–you know, the one that made you stop taking Shyamalan seriously as a director. For me, this was The Village, but I honestly saw it coming with Signs. M. Night Shyamalan was a success when he utilized the plot reversal technique (that ironic twist that changes the stakes) well, but he began to fail when he ran out of original ways to do so.
In The Sixth Sense, we see the plot reversal after the film’s midpoint. Bruce Willis’s character is, in fact, dead, and has been since the beginning of the movie. This explains why he can’t communicate with his wife. What the audience has taken for a hyperbole about the pain of impending divorce and a metaphorical barrier between him and his wife was actually not exaggerated and a very physical barrier. No corpus mundi for Bruce Willis, no way of speaking to anyone other than the boy who sees ghosts. The biggest reversal here is that Bruce Willis’s character believes he is helping the child throughout the movie (and he is), but the child is really the one helping him, which is even more ironic due to his character being a psychologist. How we experience the movie the first time and our second viewing changes as we begin to look for potential holes and foreshadowing (like Fight Club, The Secret Window, Shutter Island, etc.) because we, as an audience, have been fooled. (Well, if we have been fooled. I figure most of these kinds of movies out before the big reveal, which irritates anyone sitting through them with me for the first time. Sometimes it depends on the genre. I had The Sixth Sense‘s number pretty early in, but I didn’t see the reversals in Die Hard with a Vengeance or The Usual Suspects coming because contemporary action flicks aren’t my cup of tea. I knew there was something wrong about the village in The Village based on the dates on the tombstones at the beginning and so assumed the monsters wouldn’t be any more real, which made the movie even more disappointing for me because I could not suspend disbelief.)
In Unbreakable, which features Bruce Willis again but this time with his Die Hard co-star, Samuel L. Jackson (M. Night Shyamalan must have liked Die Hard with a Vengeance too), we meet two characters at opposite ends of a genetic spectrum: David Dunn (Willis) and Elijah Price (Jackson). David is unbreakable; he was destined for athletic greatness before a conflict with this girlfriend, who he later marries, causes him to fake an injury that leads to him working as a security guard at the stadium where he once had his glory days. Elijah, on the other hand, has a genetic disease that makes his bones particularly susceptible to being broken. (His legs are broken during his birth in the opening scene.) These two meet because Elijah, who used comic books as his inspiration to succeed in life despite his disabilities, is searching for a real life comic hero–someone like David, who is on the opposite end of the genetic spectrum. This happens when David walks away from a train crash as the sole survivor and without a scratch on him. David is skeptical, but Elijah points out that he has chosen to protect people as a career, that his accident with his wife was a fake, that he has never called in sick to work, and other aspects of David’s life that he has taken for granted. Elijah leads David to becoming a gritty, real life superhero, and this culminates in his saving a family from a serial rapist and murderer. Then, the reversal of the plot happens at the end of the film. David realizes (or, in a way, Elijah confesses) to being the villain of the story all along. Elijah set up the train crash to see if anyone would survive. He also set up a hotel fire and various other atrocities, killing thousands. He has been searching for a hero all his life. While David has only recently become Sentry Man (the newspapers name him this), Elijah has always been Mr. Glass. This is probably the best example of “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” I have seen in a film, and it is made possible by Shyamalan’s use of plot reversal. In the title cards at the end, we see that David leads the police to Elijah and finally has him arrested on mass murder charges.
In The Village, M. Night Shyamalan is still working with the plot reversal technique, but audiences have come to expect it from him, and his usage of it is not up to par with his previous films because he now has the challenge of “fooling us” without simply placing the reversal near the end. The Village bleeds the plot reversal in through too much foreshadowing, and when coupled with the audience suspecting Shyamalan of “fooling us”, it ends up not really being a reversal at all. By the time the blind girl is in the forest with monsters, only she believes in the monsters because the audience knows the truth. Moreover, the monster’s costume is entirely unnecessary because she is blind. This scene is a particularly strange example of what is happening visually on the screen being far more interesting than– and entirely out of touch with–what is actually happening in the plot of the story. No one was “fooled”.
It becomes easy after The Village to chalk up Shyamalan’s more recent failures to his being a proverbial “one trick pony” in his use of the plot reversal, but this is an oversimplification. Poor research, the inability to cast as many A list actors after Signs, and his insistence on writing, directing, and producing rather than breaking up these roles has led to a steady decline in his films. Conversely, he has also had a heavy hand in Wayward Pines, a successful television show that (guess what?) used the same technique but made it viable again through stretching it out over most of season one. Now that the audience knows the truth about the town, however, the show is relying on us sticking with the characters to see what happens to them, and I imagine a dropping off of viewers will occur now that the cat is, once again, out of the bag.